April is a time in Louisiana when the air is full of festival fun, when feet are itching to “cut da rug” at Zydeco hoedowns in Lafayette, milk wild cows at Angola or get together at crawfish boils in backyards everywhere. An old saying in south Louisiana goes, “A Cajun will eat anything that won’t eat him first.” Po-boys, fried catfish, alligator and crawfish pistolettes are around every corner and it’s all a part of what makes Louisiana cooking famous.
Crawfish are an inseparable part of Cajuns and the culture that grew up around those French Canadians who settled in southern Louisiana in the mid-1700s. These mud-burrowing crustaceans—alternately called crawdads, mudbugs or crayfish—are enjoyed roughly from March to November (they go dormant in winter) and taste something like a cross between shrimp and lobster. You’ll find them in a few dozen recipes, but the most popular way of eating Crawfish in Louisiana is boiled, straight out of the shell.
Crawfish can be bought pre-boiled and clean, but most prefer to do it themselves, soaking the crawfish in an ice chest full of fresh or salted water prior to cooking. This soaking both cleans their exterior and forces them to spit up the muck in their intestines. Ideas differ on how to season a crawfish boil, with an equal number of opinions as to which one is best, but a large pot of boiling water seasoned with salt, cayenne pepper, lemon, garlic, bay leaves and Cajun seasoning is a good start. Other additions include potatoes, corn on the cob, onions, garlic, sausage and sometimes mushrooms. The boiled shellfish are generally served at a gathering known as a crawfish boil. Other popular variations include crawfish étouffée, fried crawfish, crawfish pie, crawfish dressing, crawfish bread and crawfish beignets. Outside Louisiana, Sweden is the only place in the world where crawfish are widely consumed. Swedish crawfish boils are called Kräftor, ‘crawfish’ in Swedish.
The incredible crawfish étouffée
Eating boiled crawfish involves a tricky series of twists, cracks, and pinches that spill the red-brown juice over fingers and hands. Some eat only the tail, which is actually the crawfish’s abdomen, but most in Louisiana begin by breaking off the tail and sucking the head with its rich juice, which the locals call fat.
Crawfish Pistolette, a piece of heaven from the bayou
Fossils suggest that crawfish have been around for 285 million years. They are not usually rare in Louisiana, at least when there are no Katrinas or oil spills in the gulf. Most crawfish live short lives of less than two years, a brief life span that means quick, high-volume reproduction is important for continuation of the species. Because the eggs look something like berries, the egg-bearing females are described in May and June as being “in berry.” Eggs hatch in ten to twenty weeks and the newly-hatched crawfish stay attached to their mother until shortly after a second molting of the shell.
Louisiana supplies ninety-eight percent of the crawfish harvested in the United States. In 1987 the state produced ninety percent of the crawfish in the world, seventy percent of it consumed locally. In 2010, the Louisiana crawfish harvest was about 88 million pounds, almost all from aquaculture. Wild crawfish from the Atchafalaya Basin accounts for about twenty percent of Louisiana’s harvest, about 15.5 million pounds in 2010. From seventy to eighty percent of crawfish in Louisiana are red swamp crawfish, the remaining twenty or thirty percent white river crawfish. Despite the large-scale production in Louisiana, most frozen crawfish available in supermarkets outside of Louisiana are imported from China.